101. The Boy Who Knew Too Much

“No, it’s the children who are wrong.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 5 May 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 21 December 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Jeff Lynch

If you watch season five of The Simpsons in the order it was transmitted, it feels a bit odd to find an episode about the relationship between Bart and Principal Skinner followed by… an episode about the relationship between Bart and Principal Skinner. Especially as the former episode was so outstanding. Might this episode not have benefited from being shunted a few weeks later – or even held over until season six? Viewed in sequence, The Boy Who Knew Too Much can’t help but be slightly overshadowed by its predecessor, and unfairly so, because its depiction of the relationship between Bart and Principal Skinner is just as entertaining as that which preceded it by seven days. Granted, almost every episode of The Simpsons outshines, undercuts or grates unpleasantly against the ones either side of it. And who nowadays bothers to watch each season in order? All the same, this is the most blatant and speedy retread of an idea in the show’s history so far. If you come straight from seeing Skinner cooking Bart a barbecue to seeing Skinner pursue Bart like Yul Brynner in Westworld, the effect is a little jarring.

It’s to the episode’s credit that whatever residual memories you may have of the barbecue are quickly and efficiently superseded by the sight of Skinner tracking Bart through the streets of Springfield. This is one of those sequences where animation (10), music (10) and character (10) all come together in just the right dosage to create a flawless example of immersive television. There’s no plot to speak of; it’s all about the atmosphere and the mood evoked by Skinner plodding mercilessly onwards, sure of his judgment (“Am I so out of touch? No – it’s the children who are wrong”) yet not so proud as to pass up the chance to lick a piece of discarded chewing gum (“Double mint! Trying to double your fun, eh Bart? Well I’ll double your attention. I wish someone was around to hear that”). The very idea of Skinner being somehow as indestructible as Westworld’s Gunslinger is preposterous and therefore brilliant. Everything is played absolutely straight, which just makes it all the more satisfying – both as pastiche (10) and a gag in its own right.

This whole opening sequence is actually the most satisfying chunk of the episode, by virtue of having a coherency of tone and style that sit apart from, and some way above, what comes next. The background and location design (10) is beautiful; rarely has Springfield looked this bucolic.

Once again Bart is at his most appealing when he is shown using his wits to get out of tricky situations, rather than just being a brat. This goes as much for his imagination – well-stocked with the likes of Huckleberry Finn and Abraham Lincoln – as his bravura, handing Mrs Krabappel a fake letter with the immortal sign-off: “Please excuse my handwriting, I’ve busted whichever hand it is I write with. Signed Mrs Simpson”. The best jokes (8) are in this part of the episode too, both silly (“You were right to be suspicious, Edna – to the crime lab!”) and well-crafted (the reveal when Skinner declares: “If I were a truant boy out for a good time, I’d be right here – [pull back] – the Springfield Natural History Museum!”).

The sound of the gates clanging shut outside the Quimby Compound is also the sound of the storyline (7) abruptly changing gears and of a brand new, concocted-just-for-the-occasion, wafer-thin character trumpeting their arrival. Freddie Quimby is a ghastly creation but at least isn’t written as anything other than a plot device. He exists to allow Lisa to remind Bart that, because of him, “a horrible yet innocent person is going to jail”. Having roamed all over Springfield during its first few minutes, the episode then spends the rest of the time shuttling between the courtroom and the Palace Hotel while firing off zingers of varying quality about trials and juries and room service. Things very quickly turn into what feels more like a cabaret than a story, though some of the stuff in the courtroom is very funny: Homer’s fake glasses, Dr Hibbert’s description of the “evil gene” (“Hitler had it; Walt Disney had it!”), Moe receiving his bribe, Lionel Hutz being Lionel Hutz (“I’m going to prove to you that not only is Freddie Quimby is guilty, but that he is also innocent of not being guilty”) voiced by Phil Hartman being Phil Hartman (8). Plaudits too for the antics of the “clumsy, Clouseau-esque waiter”, most of which aren’t seen but merely implied by – first time round – a dazzling assembly of sound effects and – second time round – shrewd cutaways leaving your imagination to fill in the painful blanks.

The trial scene is the point at which Homer starts getting more lines in the script than Bart and the episode loses more of the focus it had at its outset. Because he’s once again playing the role of clown to Bart’s ringmaster (see Bart Gets an Elephant), Homer is written with very broad strokes. He’s stupid and gluttonous and, aside from the scam with the glasses, doesn’t come over at all endearing. You don’t really want to spend time in his company, and you pity poor Skinner for having to share his hotel room. Doesn’t Skinner have anything to say to Homer about Bart? Not one word passes between them about the boy who got them into this mess and who Skinner has vowed to send to Christian Military Reform School. At least the end of the episode returns Bart and Skinner to centre stage and there’s a satisfying hark back to the seductive cat-and-mouse tone (8) of part one (“I’m a small, petty man; three months detention! Wait a minute Bart, make that… four months detention.”) And in a story where Harry Shearer again gives the best vocal performance (9) it’s fitting he gets – almost – the closing lines. (90%)

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